One of the most famous public inquiries in British history is the Saville Inquiry held into the “Bloody Sunday” killings in 1972. The Inquiry was commissioned in 1998 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and over the course of 13 years costs spiralled to an estimated final total of £200million, much of which is thought to have been in legal bills. Compared with other recent inquiries, Saville was expensive – the Shipman Inquiry reporting between 2000 and 2005 cost £21million; and the 2003 Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, the most expensive child protection investigation in British history, reported total costs of £3.8 million. In general, however, Inquiries tend to be resource-intensive, expensive projects. In austere times, are they a luxury we can’t afford?
Possible answers to this question depend on a number of factors. No two Inquiries will be the same; even those looking at the same issue, such as the Hutton and Iraq inquiries looking at aspects of the 2003 Iraq war, will have different “feels” to them, and can draw out different points of focus. Social needs can change over time, and in the case of lengthy and particularly detailed Inquiries, issues may acquire prominence as the Inquiry progresses. While Inquiry expenses can run high, the sometimes emotive nature of their investigations provides a very real balance to a solely cost-based valuation approach. The headline figures not only show the financial cost of accurate versions of the truth and lessons learned, but also in many cases touch on the price of mental and moral quietude. When we consider the scale of some events precipitating Inquiries, such as the number of people affected by the Libor rate rigging scandal, Mid Staffordshire or the Iraq war, financial cost acquires a different kind of meaning and reference.
Thinking in more finite terms, Inquiry costs seem to spiral because of the sheer volume of data they handle. The Laming Inquiry produced a 400 page report on the events leading up to Victoria Climbie’s death and the implications for child protection protocols; while the six reports of the Shipman Inquiry ran to 5,000 pages from 270,000 pages of evidence. To stay true to the investigative remit of inquiries, all of this information needs to be processed, analysed and presented as pieces of the big Inquiry jigsaw. Practically speaking, it is reasonable to imagine that improvements to process could also be beneficial to the bottom line. Rather than starting from first principles every time, a common point of reference for procedures and resources could promote financial cost savings. A clearer sense of process might also promote a more holistic cost benefit – if the public and wider stakeholders know what will happen, and with what objective in mind, there is less chance that the time and expense devoted to Inquiries will provoke criticism.
So, are Inquiries good value for money? I will take refuge in the classical economist’s response: “it depends”. Certainly the prevailing mindset that appraises cost in purely financial terms may need to change as the role of Inquiries in society becomes more nuanced. Let us take our cue on costs from the spirit of Inquiries themselves, and view the value for money question in its fullest context.